The Revered Cocoa Bean

Article excerpt

Farmers in the forested foothills of Ghana lovingly tend cocoa trees on small family farms. The trees, which take five years to mature, grow 12 to 15 feet high and yield two crops a year. When the cocoa pods are ripe, the farmers harvest them, split them open, remove the moist beans, and place the beans between broad banana leaves on the forest floor, where they naturally ferment--a process that takes from five to seven days. During this process, the beans are turned by hand. They are then placed on large tables to dry in the warm Ghanaian sunshine.

Ghana is known to produce superior cocoa beans, and for years it has exported the vast majority of its crop abroad, where foreign processors extract cocoa liquor (the essence of the bean) and cocoa butter--the two key ingredients used to make chocolate. To reduce costs, foreign chocolate makers often use lower-quality beans, and they sometimes substitute low-cost vegetable oil for a portion of the cocoa butter in order to make the Swiss, Belgian, French, Dutch or American chocolate that we consume.

At the Omanhene Cocoa Bean Company in Tema--the only factory in Ghana to manufacture finished chocolate from the "finest cocoa beans in the world" (The Financial Times, London)--great care is taken to preserve the intense flavor of the cocoa bean. The fermented beans are taken from farms to the Omanhene factory, where they are roasted and pressed until the dark, rich cocoa liquor and the clear, creamy cocoa butter flow freely. The remaining solid, called cocoa cake, is then processed to produce cocoa powder--the key ingredient in hot cocoa mix. The cocoa liquor and cocoa butter are combined with sugar, full-cream milk and soy lecithin (an emulsifier that keeps the cocoa butter and cocoa liquor from separating) to make chocolate bars. Omanhene uses no artificial flavors, preservatives or cheap vegetable fat to make its pure chocolate. As a result, the taste is rich, the aroma is potent, and the chocolate has fewer calories than you might suspect.

Omanhene's principals--Kojo Afedzi Hayford, a Ghanaian businessman, and Steven Wallace, a Wisconsin attorney and entrepreneur--have been partners since 1991. Hayford earned his undergraduate and master's degrees from California State University, Sacramento, and worked in California for four years before returning home to Ghana to found Tara Systems Ghana Ltd.--one of the leading information technology companies in West Africa. Wallace studied in Ghana as an exchange student in 1978 and sought a reason to return after graduating from Brown University and then obtaining a law degree from the University of Chicago.

"A mutual friend who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture ... brought Steve and me together," Hayford says. "He thought Steve's vision and my savvy ... would be a good fit to propel the Omanhene dream to its ultimate success."

"We were of the same age, temperament, and, most importantly, shared the same vision," Wallace adds.

Before the Hayford-Wallace alliance, the entire cocoa industry in Ghana was government-owned. …